It’s a fact. Florence lacks green space. Aside from the banks of the Arno and a handful of piazzas on the outskirts, there are hardly any trees to be found in the historic city center. I almost didn’t notice until well into my first year in Florence. Perhaps I was used to this void, having moved from another urban center (New York), or maybe I was just so distracted by the city’s stunning beauty (albeit of the less animate variety). I think it hit me when the urge for a picnic first took hold and I suddenly found myself at a complete loss for where to go to enjoy some grassy solitude within walking distance.
There are, of course, the Boboli gardens, but without the Amici degli Uffizi card you’re looking at 10 euros just to enjoy their shady trees for a day. Even the small park along the southern side of the Arno (just past Ponte alle Grazie) known as La Spiagga (the “beach”), can be a little less than inviting after a Friday or Saturday night. A bus ticket to Fiesole or Pratolino can help you feel more immersed in nature, but seems excessively far just to hear the sound of leaves rustling.
Somehow in all of this, it never occurred to me to go the major park that is actually relatively close to the center, il Parco delle Cascine. For years, its unfortunate nighttime “activities” made it somewhat off-limits. Aside from visiting some local discotecas in the area, no one with good sense would have gone wandering into the park at night. Its shady side (an after hours phenomenon…like most shady sides) gave the park a seedy feeling even by the light of day. I never once stepped into the Cascine as an undergrad, even though I studied abroad for an entire year. Nothing good ever really seemed to happen there.
As of late things have changed. Thanks to various interest groups and the Mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, Le Cascine is enjoying some much-needed rejuvenation. Indeed, its new life is starting to reflect the active role it played in centuries past. Like the gorgeous Parco Ducale in Parma, Le Cascine belonged to the Dukes of Florence. In fact, the gardens were used for hunting and included a farm with cow stables that (as with all things that are good) was used for making cheese. In fact, Le Cascine derives from the word “cacio,” which is another way to say cheese in Italian.
How could I not love this place? It’s named after my favorite food!
Today, its connection with food production continues with the weekly Cascine Market, which takes place every Tuesday from morning to afternoon right along the Arno (follow the crowds, you can’t miss it. Or check out the map below). Aside from being a fantastic place to find affordable household goods, clothing, knickknacks, and food, it is also a wonderful way to get a glimpse into Italian market culture. Visit your favorite 1-euro stand, buy an espresso at one of the coffee carts, or eye the birds for sale at the open-air pet store. Everything you need (along with everything you don’t) is there and for a good price. It was at this market—with a 1-euro duster, a 5-euro dress, a 10-euro pitcher, and a 2-euro pair of earrings in hand—that I first started to fall for Le Cascine.
I knew it was true love, however, when I started making the short bike ride there to go running on Saturday or Sunday mornings. This was the green space I had been looking for! Gaggles of Italians running and families on bikes! For so long I was convinced they just didn’t exercise and my inability to consume vast quantities of pasta was simply a genetic weakness. Not so! Come to the Cascine and see for yourself. The main path can get a little crowded but there are plenty more to choose from.
Now I have fallen, and fallen hard. I began to read up on some of the other interesting sites that make up Le Cascine. At the end of the eighteenth century the park was enhanced by the addition of several buildings, such as the Palazzina Reale, which now houses the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Florence; structures such as the Fontana delle Boccacce, the stone pyramid (which was originally used as an ice depository to help keep the cheese made on the ducal farm from spoiling), an amphitheater, two buildings in the shape of neoclassical temples (which were originally built as aviaries), and many other fountains. Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Habsburg-Lorraine officially opened the park to the public in 1791.
During the summer months, the park is an ideal spot for cultural events, concerts, and local fairs. We attended the Expo Rurale in September where cows, sheep, and baby olive trees (adorable!) were on display along with wine and olive oil demonstrations. Over 200,000 visitors made their way into the Cascine to learn more about the agricultural economy of Florence and to taste some of the local specialties. Want to see a major band in Florence? Radiohead just played in the park! Want to get your politics on? The Festa Democratica was also held in the Cascine, promoted by none other than the mayor himself.
As Mayor Renzi said, the park is being renovated “inch by inch.” The city has put 25 million euro into getting the park into top-notch condition by 2013 (his proposal includes 35 separate items). This will mean facelifts for various neglected monuments, new and better paths, and overall a cleaner park. The plan also includes a visitor’s center, a new major restaurant (replacing the old nightclub Central Park), horse stables, and even an 18-hole golf course. While I think a golf course may be a waste of public space, I have to get behind Renzi’s motivation: “We will return the park to Florence and we will make it attractive to tourists.” Just imagine some of those lines in front of the David becoming crowds enjoying the beautiful and cherished green space Florence was once so well known for. This is something the whole city should get behind.
For more on Renzi’s plan, open this link in Chrome and have it translated.